Birds and Birthdays, by Christopher Barzak
Having failed to find Christopher Barzak's books in local book shops since 2009, I was immensely pleased to find three of his books on Kindle this weekend. I spent a wonderful morning reading "Birds and Birthdays", three stories he'd made as a graduate student in creative writing (he says in the afterword, which is a kind of poetics essay).
Without doubt, one of Barzak's strengths is world building. The greatest pleasure I got while reading the book was in inhabiting the worlds that Barzak builds with his words--they are vivid and strange. The narrative premises are likewise intriguing: A woman who creates birds out of starlight is disturbed by her ex-lover's theft of stars; a boy observes his sister as she turns into a giant, a kind of guardian of the forest; a woman who owns an apartment building begins inhabiting each room, transforming her "self" with every move.
The stories are all exercises in ekphrasis, taking off from three paintings by women identified with the Surrealist movement of the early twentieth century: Remedios Varo; Leonora Carrington; and Dorothea Tanning. Barzak's afterword gives an excellent account of his process of transforming visual art into words in general, and fiction in particular (as opposed to ekphrasis in poetry, which he describes too).
Although some might quibble that the worlds he depicts in the stories have merely been derived from Surrealist art, the process of translating the visual experience into words is not as easy as it might seem. Barzak says:
"With visual art, there is an almost direct transference in the act of seeing. The image appears in the mind because the materials of the image are not as abstract as words are. The images are concrete, appearing right before us in those long, brightly lit museum hallways, or in the pixels of our computer screens. Interpretation still occurs, but the route is more direct."
In contrast: "With writing, readers are invited into the narrative. They have their own associations with words, and those associations will inevitably lead them to have an approximate experience of the one the writer has experienced as the arranger of...words" that produce, or approximate, the images that the writer had seen.
Barzak calls his stories "conversations" with the women Surrealists, "through their art". "My subject," he claims, "is not Woman, but women's self-representations in Surrealism." "If I could have one wish granted, a question answered, I would ask them this: Did I hear you right?"
Two stories take the point of view of the women depicted by these women painters--one takes the point of view of a young boy viewing a woman that is the subject of the last of the featured paintings.
The strongest story is "The Guardian of the Egg", which employs the point of view of a young boy observing his elder sister (the subject of one of the Surrealist paintings). The narrative voice is stronger and surer than that employed in the other two stories, "The Creation of Birds" and "Birthday", which employs the point of view of the primary (woman) character. Occasionally, I felt that I was told how the narrators in the last two stories felt, instead of feeling such emotions myself. I failed to connect with these characters, the way I connected with the young boy protagonist in "The Guardian of the Egg". Unsurprisingly, the ending of "The Guardian of the Egg" is far more satisfying as well.
Barzak admits that his gender somewhat complicates his project: How does he not fall into the trap from which the women Surrealists were trying to escape--that is, the Surrealist movements' predominantly male gaze, which depicted women's bodies as a site of disruption and violation: "splayed open, or aggrandized to the point of making the female body into something mysterious and other", a "primary image or metaphor for the Surrealist intent to destroy calcified categories, hierarchies, and traditions"-- "the deliberate meeting of a woman's body with a scalpel on a dissecting table..." and the use of "woman" as a "site for the emptying out of all old meanings...to display the chaos that emerges from such rupture in a culture...while men remain carefully obscured, safe, behind the images they created." How, he asks, is he different from the "male Surrealists of Modernism" who "cut Woman open and look[ed] inside?"
"I didn't want to do a disservice to the artists or the art. I didn't want to unintentionally offend. I'd done extensive research, had looked and looked and looked again at their paintings, had thought about their personal histories, their own writing on their work, had read their own scholarship about what it was they were doing--all the sources of their own creations. If nothing else, I eventually told myself, I've looked at their own concepts of Self in earnest contemplation...I realized that I might have done what the male Surrealists of that particular moment in time hadn't. I'd listened."
Which is not to say that I didn't enjoy the collection. I did, immensely so, and there's so much one can learn craft-wise, just by reading the stories.